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Self-driving cars will be part of the future – but researchers fear we are leaving the disabled behind

Picture shows of how driverless vehicles may look on the highwaySelf-driving cars will be part of the future, but researchers fear people with disabilities are being left behind in the development of the technology.

Over the past two decades, transportation has become more accessible, but people with disabilities still face significant barriers to accessing these services. While self-driving cars (also known as autonomous vehicles) have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of those with disabilities, helping them to travel independently, experts fear their views are being neglected in the development of the new technology

To address this, researchers from WMG at The University of Warwick and leading disability charities have considered the impact of self-driving taxis on people with disabilities, an area that has seen limited improvement over recent years.

They found that the absence of a driver was strongly correlated with feelings and perceptions of increased travel freedom, indicating that autonomous taxis could provide greater accessibility for those with disabilities – without the limitations or biases associated with their current experiences with traditional taxis and drivers.

The team also considered current issues people who have disabilities face with transport – particularly in booking taxi journeys. Participants expressed concerns about driver attitudes and behaviour as negative experiences with traditional taxis.

Lead author Shravani Sharma, PhD Researcher, WMG, University of Warwick, said: “Our research highlights the current issues those with disabilities face when booking taxis – with many reporting that their trips have been cancelled due to their use of a wheelchair. Drivers might feel the extra time wheelchairs add to journeys would reduce their earnings. While there are laws in place preventing black cab drivers cancelling journeys for those with wheelchairs – there are no such laws for other companies.

“Self-driving taxis could provide those with disabilities more freedom and reduce fear of discrimination. So, it’s crucial we listen to their opinions in developing the technology.

“We worked with charities including CASBA (Citizen Advocacy South Birmingham Area), which supports people with learning difficulties, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and Cerebral Palsy Midlands to name a few, providing a wide range of voices and expertise. This represented many different visible and non-visible disabilities – including blindness, mobility problems, hearing loss, cerebral palsy and ADHD amongst others. The perspectives of more than 39,000 different organisation members were included.

“Alongside the current problems those with disabilities face when booking taxis, we highlighted their concerns for future, self-driving taxis. The main concern was the availability of human assistance to meet specific user needs throughout the journey.”

Examples of concerns for future, self-driving taxis:

  • The challenges faced by individuals in wheelchairs when attempting to enter a car without assistance are multifaceted. Tasks include placing their wheelchair inside the car, securing themselves within it, disassembling and carefully navigating the wheelchair upon departure.

  • For those with visual impairments, the struggle lies in identifying their vehicle within a crowded setting, such as a bustling railway station.

  • The loss of social interactions and the light-hearted atmosphere during journeys. Many individuals with disabilities unfortunately contend with feelings of loneliness and isolation, making everyday conversations a vital source of companionship and comfort throughout their journey.

Shravani added: “It is also important that manufacturers consider the wide range of disabilities and the intricate needs for passengers – remembering that not all disabilities are visible.”

Dr Roger Woodman, Head of Human Factors, at the University of Warwick, said: “Self-driving vehicles will open up driving to people that have never been on their own in a vehicle before. It has the potential to transform their lives – with reduced reliance on others to help them get from A to B.

“Driving is a very complex task to complete, so self-driving cars could enable someone with a disability, for example, cerebral palsy or tremors, to simply press a button and go.

Ginny Cullen, CEO of CASBA, added: “CASBA exists to ensure people with learning disabilities speak up for themselves, express their views, make their choices, and are valued as citizens. We were therefore delighted to have had the opportunity to be included in this research on new autonomous vehicles to ensure driving is accessible to all.”

CASE STUDIES – both available for media interviews upon request

Jen Brown
“I have a lot of trouble with the buses. I use a walker and they don’t lower the bus, making it very hard for me to get on and off.

“I had a lot of stress with a taxi company. I often travel from Kingstanding to Northfield. The taxi company didn’t want to take the job and sometimes cancelled, leaving me stressed and late for work. Sometimes I was not able to get home from work.

“I went to a food show in November, when I got to the station the lift was out of order. I walked round the station looking for staff to help, no one and there was no one in the office. I phoned mom and dad see if they could find a number. I had to end up putting my walker on the escalator which was very dangerous.

“I nearly got locked on the train once. I have regular visits to the Severn Valley Railway and am used to the journey. When got to Snow Hill the train stopped, and I thought it was waiting for the signal. People started to get off the train, and I didn’t know why, I decided to get off and just as I did the lights went off and the doors closed. It said on the screen it was cancelled and with my hearing impairment I couldn’t hear the announcement.

Jen added her thoughts on what difference self-driving taxis would make to her life. She said: “When I finish work, I feel very tired and don’t want to talk. I just want to relax on my way home. Also, with my hearing impairment if the windows are open, I can’t hear the driver and just guess as what he is saying. Self-driving taxis would cause me less stress and worry as I wouldn’t have to worry about what the driver is saying to me.”

Michaela Mooney
“I think some people misjudge invisible disability. I may look like I can do things like everyone else but it has a high energy cost for me; my joints hurt and sometimes dislocate so when there's no seats on a bus it can be a struggle. I fall over a lot, sometimes slam doors by accident and when people don't understand what happens it can be hard mentally and physically. I think a self-driving car would mean more independence as you don't have to depend on someone to get around.”

Notes to Editors

Shravani’s research also highlights:

  • This is the right time to involve many such organisations that work with people with disabilities to understand user needs via consultations, pilots, and testing.

  • Presently, autonomous vehicles and other transport related studies primarily focus on addressing physical disabilities. This emphasis is evident even in signage, consistently featuring wheelchair symbols. However, the breadth of this spectrum encompasses a wide array of conditions. Consequently, it is imperative for brands to acknowledge and cater to these varied requirements and this research can be a basepoint for such engagements.

  • This type of research of understanding user-specific needs and requirements will be useful for many such emerging technologies for the equitable rate of adoption to reach the overarching goal of inclusivity and accessibility.

  • Future research will also consider more intelligent human machine interaction that can have a social touch to it, for example, personalised conversation nuances, or even adding diverse accents to computer generated voices.
Fri 22 Sep 2023, 14:34 | Tags: Intelligent Vehicles Research Human Factors